Written By: Thomas Scott
June 15, 2017
Tuesday, a press release from Commissioner Duer Sharp and the SWAC conference sent shockwaves throughout the HBCU sports community. The SWAC announced they will forgo playing their football title game after the 2017 season. According to Commissioner Sharp the SWAC decided to eliminate their title game to focus on the Celebration Bowl.
“By focusing on the Celebration Bowl we can continue to grow the AFRCB as an HBCU classic for the teams and fans of both conferences and for HBCU football nationally.” – Duer Sharp
The SWAC title game had become a tradition in the conference since 1999. Under the old rules, the top team from the East Division faced off against the top team from the West Division for the SWAC crown. The title game was played in Birmingham from 1999 to 2012. In 2013, the game was moved to the NRG Center in Houston and has been played there ever since.
The timing behind eliminating the title game is surprising, considering the other major rule change slated for this season. This year the SWAC will abandon their nine game round-robin schedule and reduce the number of conference games to seven. The combination of the scheduling change an elimination of the title game will drastically alter league play.
For starters, in the round-robin format each team played each other once. This meant results from head to head matchups could be used as tiebreakers. In the new seven game format teams will play all four division opponents, a designated rival, and two opponents from the other division.
Why is this important? Head to head matchup results will no longer determine tiebreakers. Theoretically, two teams could have the best records in the conference without having played one another. The SWAC championship will be awarded to the team with the best regular season conference record; however in the event of a tie league officials will determine the champion.
According to the official press release:
“The conference office along with SWAC administrators and coaches will work to solidify a tie-breaker procedure, scheduling and other factors that contribute to dissolving the championship format.”
Many athletes and fans are upset to see the game go. In a poll conducted on the BlackBall sports Twitter platform, 89% of respondents believed the SWAC made a mistake in eliminating the title game. What fans don’t realize are the financial implications behind the rule change. Data suggests attendance and support of the SWAC championship game was on the decline. Eliminating the title game and reducing the number of conference games gives athletic directors the flexibility to schedule four out of conference games. This flexibility provides programs with the opportunity to increase revenue and interest nationally.
Whatever metric SWAC coaches an administrators use to determine the tiebreaker will most certainly alter league play. Will out of conference strength of schedule be a determining factor in tiebreakers or merely the overall out of conference record? Many programs play “money” games against larger FBS programs early in the season to boost revenue. With a trip to the Celebration Bowl at stake, what scheduling strategy might administrators employ? They could choose to schedule less “money” games, schedule games against other top FCS programs, or create/renew rivalries with other HBCU football teams in different conferences. It will be interesting to see the adjustments SWAC programs make and how fans react.
The decision to forgo the championship game will increase the importance of EVERY game played. Last season the Celebration Bowl had a record number of 2.7 million viewers and was seen in over 140 countries. It may take fans and athletes longer to get on board, but the rule changes might have made the road to the Celebration Bowl more entertaining.